Habits and Holiness

I was reading something last night that got me thinking about the value of teaching our children the rituals and practices and habits of faith.  The author was offering a word of caution, suggesting that religion and habit keep a person from actually engaging God.  I think there is something true about that in the sense that we can get so used to the language and habits of religion that we begin to confuse them with actual experience of God.  As a pastor, I see that happening all the time, people coming to church every week and going through the motions of religion, really confessing that they believe in the truth of God and yet never actually engaging with God.  So, I get the caution and yet something in me thinks we can’t through the baby out with the bathwater.

 In my Christian Education classes at Duke, Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell taught us much about the importance of ritual and habit in the formation of Christians.  The rituals and habits of standing for the gospel, listening to the proclamation, saying a creed, praying corporately, offering our self and gifts to God and breaking bread really do matter.  They teach us the posture of gratitude, of humility, of our dependence on God and one another.  The things that we say in the creed are actually forming our understanding of the nature of God.  Like Rich Mullin’s sang in his fantastic song, “Creed” –

I believe what I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am

I did not make it, no it is making me

It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

 I turned 16 in December 1991 and got my driver’s license the next day.  By some act of insanity my mother handed me the keys to my own car, a 1988 Chevy Sprint like this one…


My closed in golf cart.

Let me be clear this story is the reason I am giving thanks for the new laws in NC that require you to have a permit for a year and then don’t allow a bunch of teenagers to get in the car together till the driver has a lot of experience.  So, I take the car out for my first solo drive to Boone (about 45 minutes from home), with 3 of my girl friends to see a movie.  It was December in the mountains so no one should have been surprised when we got out of the movie to see that it had been snowing for a while.  I’d had a license for 2 days, I’d sat beside my Mom driving in the snow most of my life, never mind that my car was 2 wheel drive and I’d never done it myself – I’ve got this right?  NO WAY!  I was terrified but I didn’t want my friends to know that, I had to play like I had all the confidence in the world.  That was the longest drive home ever, but I felt OK because I wasn’t alone, my friends were there to encourage me.   I dropped the first of my friends off and told her to call my mom and tell her I was coming but would be late (ahh the days before cell phones).   I dropped off the next two and gave them the same instructions and then headed to the hardest part, driving the last 10 miles alone.  The snow had really picked up by this point and it was dark and hard to see the road in front of me.  I gripped the steering wheel and felt so very alone and scared and incapable of doing this.  So I prayed for God to help me and then, almost without thought, I began to sing to try to calm myself.  I didn’t bust out with “(Everything I do), I do for you” or “Rush, Rush” – what came from my mouth were hymns and the sung rituals of The Lord’s Supper , “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might…”  The more I sang the more I felt the presence of God sitting in the car with me and the more I felt that presence the less afraid I felt.  I made it home safely and sat in the car a long time giving thanks for the gift of that journey with God.

 Scripture says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is hold he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) I believe that.  Good spiritual nurture of children and adults involves teaching the rhythms and habits of the Christian life- what we might call religion – because these provide a framework of openness to God at work.  In the midst of that work however, we need to be careful to not put such much emphasis on the habits and rhythms that we begin to mistake them for God.  The habits, rituals, rhythms, and practices of religion are not God, they are conduits of the Spirit that open us to transformative encounter with the divine.  On my ride home that snowy night the practices of church opened a pathway for me to meet God and experience the power of His presence to bring peace that passes understanding.  Again and again in my life, the habit of kneeling has brought into experience with the God who is greater than I, the hymns of the church have come unbidden on my lips and invited me to rely on God alone, and the rhythms of praise, prayer, thanksgiving, and attentiveness to the Word have shaped my walk with God.  I am grateful for these conduits taught when I was just a child that have enabled my encounter with the Holy.  They are the trappings of religion which are fruitless in themselves but transformative when we see them for what they are – invitations to encounter with the Lord.

Blessing on your journey!

Toni Ruth


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